For so many, ringing in the New Year brings hope and a chance to start anew. But for Kristie Rongen, it marked the day she could no longer carry on.
"I was walking alone and said: 'This is enough.'"
She made her way toward the frigid Dutch shores of Lelystad, intent on succumbing to the numbing currents when, suddenly, a dog raced toward her and distracted Rongen. She remembered her three children, drove back home, and sought medical help the next day.
Rongen is one of the 20,000 parents in the Netherlands who were wrongly accused by tax authorities of childcare benefits fraud, many of whom were also unlawfully discriminated against. The fraud probes crushed families both financially and mentally, including Rongen, who tells DW she was ordered to pay €92,000 ($110,000) — including €30,000 in interest — within two years.
Her monthly net income was €1,900.
The pursuit was relentless, with tax officials removing €900 from her bank account each month and even going so far as to track down the single mother on the highway and seize her car.
"I worked so hard to pay the extra fines — but it was never enough," she says, recalling that New Year's Day in 2015 when she wanted to take her own life. "They brought me to my knees."
The aftermath of the benefits scandal finally felled the coalition government in January, ahead of the general elections on March 15-17 (due to the pandemic, voting is spread over three days to help people vote safely).
Politicians have been ousted for much less, yet the party of caretaker leader Mark Rutte remains the clear frontrunner. It marks another milestone in Rutte's remarkable skills as a politician eyeing his fourth term in office.
'Teflon Mark' unscathed?
According to a survey conducted earlier this year by Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, on average 33% of respondents believed the government needed to step down over the scandal.
"The child benefits scandal hasn't influenced voters at all, when it comes to voting for Rutte," says Mariken van der Velden, professor of political communication at VU Amsterdam. Supporters of Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) are generally not dependent on state benefits, she tells DW, thus maintaining his base.
Rutte, who has led the Netherlands since 2010, has managed to dodge crises and criticism, earning him the nickname "Teflon Mark." And when it comes to the benefits scandal, says van der Velden, "This is a case in point."
In the eyes of Dutch citizens, regardless of party lines, Rutte's leadership during the crisis is commendable.
"People are overwhelmingly positive about Rutte — even if you don't vote for him," says van der Velden, whose research focuses on Dutch public opinion. A recent survey shared with DW found that 77% of voters back Rutte's COVID-19 measures.
The figures illustrate high praise for Rutte's handling of the pandemic — and this comes despite a sluggish vaccine rollout, very late face-mask mandate, and unpopular curfew measures that led to riots around the country.
Tjeerd, an undecided voter in Bussum, a suburb 25 kilometers (16 miles) outside Amsterdam, tells DW: "No leader is going to get it perfect. But Rutte has been steady and very professional — and he isn't doing it for his own agenda. The way he represents the Netherlands is good."
The public's perception of Rutte's pandemic response further plays to his favor, as the VU Amsterdam survey also reveals that COVID-19 is the most important issue for voters in this year's elections.
'Rallying around the flag'
The pandemic has subdued other political issues that, in "normal" times, would have likely dominated campaign rhetoric — including immigration, the economy and climate protection.
Rem Korteweg, senior research fellow at the Hague-based Clingendael Institute, says this concern and the strong support for Rutte has much to do with the Dutch electorate uniting behind their leader during the pandemic.
"This phenomenon of rallying around the flag during a crisis period works to Rutte's advantage, and I do also think that is a deliberate campaign strategy," he says.
Without traditional ways of campaigning with rallies and flyers, candidates are at the mercy of on-air time and social media traction. And with near-biweekly TV briefings held by Rutte and his health minister, Hugo de Jonge of the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the Dutch leader has the opportunity to optimize his draw.
"The COVID-19 briefings are almost free campaigning time in the current situation because he presents himself as a statesman, and that resonates with the broader population," says Korteweg.
Charming hurdle for opposition
Other political parties are struggling to claw their way out of the pandemic's shadows — and Rutte's hailed leadership — to woo voters to their cause. Standing out in a crowded field of candidates is also a challenge: At least 14 different political parties are expected to win parliamentary seats out of a record-breaking 89 parties that have registered.
"The uniqueness, in some respect, of Mark Rutte as a politician is that as prime minister COVID-19 doesn't really affect him — it affects his health minister who's with a different party," says Korteweg.
It's this ability to shield himself that helps Rutte frequently emerge intact, whilst his Cabinet members are left to take the heat.
It's Rutte's party that is poised to, again, form a coalition government, according to the latest polls. The VVD is forecast to take 40 seats, while the CDA, which is the predicted runner-up, is slated to win 19. With the high number of undecided voters and fluid dynamics of coalition formation, however, nothing is certain.
Not all favor Rutte
Since the damning revelations of the tax authority's wrongful fraud probes from 2013-2019, the government has apologized and last year set aside €500 million to compensate victims.
But for Kristie Rongen, and so many others affected by the child benefits scandal, Dutch pragmatism cannot be reconciled with Dutch injustice.
"I didn't have money, they took everything from me," she says, adding that she struggled to keep the home and feed her children, often with only sliced bread to eat.
The scandal also had a generational toll. One of her daughters, she says, suffered from severe depression as a teen and contemplated suicide until receiving psychological support.
"This is all time I can't get back — and that's why I am fighting back now," says Rongen, who now works with the Ministry of Justice and Security . "I want Rutte out because he could have waved a scepter and said: 'This is the end, I'm cutting this off.' But in the end, he never did."
Long fight amid pandemic
Rongen has been given financial compensation, an amount she declined to specify but said it was "about as much as they were trying to get me to pay." The irony, she notes, is that a chunk of the financial compensation is taxed.
Some argue that the resignation of the Dutch Cabinet led by Rutte, even if symbolic, demonstrates accountability on the prime minister's part. Rutte has said that he only became aware of the severity of child benefits scandal in 2019 and immediately sought to rectify it.
In Rongen's view, however, accountability begins when he no longer leads the government, not even as interim leader.
"I'm like that lion," she says, pointing to a canvas print hanging in her living room. "I'm a fighter who's protective of my children. And I'm going to keep fighting."